Thursday, January 12, 2006:

This Woman's Work / Work Song

Maxwell -- This Woman's Work
Nellie McKay -- Work Song
In lieu of joining the Showgirls fray (Girish has a link roundup) I decided to watch Live Nude Girls Unite!, a documentary about strippers who decide to unionize their workplace. While strippers' work gets a number of different treatments in film, this one is a bit different: it pitches the work as just that--work--with its typical drawbacks as well as some others peculiar to the line of work. Strippers talk about being bored on the job and letting their minds wander, which seems a common enough comment about work, as do many of their others--getting underscheduled, having pay cut for spurious reasons, being fired at whim. There are other complaints more specific to their work: customers sometimes film them covertly through one-way mirrors in the booths; only one worker of color works a shift in the big room; no workers of color work in private booths; workers can not call in sick unless they find a replacement, but the replacement must have skin as light or lighter and their breasts must be as big or bigger.

The labor commission won't help them because of the nature of the work (a luxury the property tax collector probably doesn't have) and when management proves indifferent to the grievances, the strippers decide to unionize. Finding representation and voting in the union proves to be the easy part; the hard part is negotiating a contract.

The documentary is filmed and narrated by one of the workers, who is also the daughter of an activist for prostitutes' rights; the mother doesn't know about her daughter's work. And here is where the film fails a bit: it's not that the filming is clumsy, though it is, or that the audio is poor, though it is, but that the film is a bit self-indulgent. The narrator is a stand-up comedian, but the bits of her routine that she includes just aren't very funny, and don't compete with some of the relayed conversations between customers and strippers. One in particular:
Customer: "Where do you work?"
Stripper: "I'm a stripper."
Customer: [pauses a beat] "What do you do for money?"

The tendency for documentary film makers to insert themselves into the film is understandable, since they're so close to the material, but I think it's a challenge to do it skillfully enough that the director doesn't prove boring, annoying, or superfluous. In this case, the director's story arc adds a bit, but the integration of the two stories is somewhat clumsy, and the director admits on-camera that she's telling her mother about her work in part because she'd likely find out anyway and in part because it would help the film. This admission shifts the viewer's attention away from worker exploitation towards family exploitation: the daughter knows her mother will find the conversation stressful--it's about something she's been hiding from her for years--yet she films it. The conversation is just as uncomfortable as imagined, prompting questions about negative space in film narrative.

While the film is somewhat self-indulgent, it's at least consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of struggle in an industry that's mostly scorned and ignored, and I was happy to see it.


Before I left for college there was a bookstore I used to go to in my little hometown: a ramshackle homely little booth in a flea market, with a garage door over the front and the walls nothing more than chicken wire held in place with bits of scrap wood. The owner was a fixture there for as long as I could remember; and I used to walk the four or five miles from my home two or three times a weekend, at first to get away from my family and then because the walk was less boring than staying at home, and then out of a wish for some sort of companionship, even the small bit of conversation I'd have around the purchase. The owner had had arthritis and tinnitus for as long as I could remember, but she was always cheerful and optimistic, quick with a joke or a sweet anecdote. I started out buying comic books from her for a quarter, when I was about eight; that progressed to young adult fiction then to science fiction and then to horror and then to some dabbling in mass-market fiction and "literature." Eventually the owner stopped selling me the books; she'd loan them to me instead, with a promise that I'd bring them back with a brief plot summary and a review; and when I moved to attend college I used to write and call frequently.

Over the years we drifted apart--she stayed at the book store, four days a week, opening before sunrise, closing at sunset, with her husband at her side, both of them living a hardscrabble life, but modest and uncomplaining; and I got wrapped up in what seems like endless school. In late 2004 I found out she had cancer but no insurance, and that as a result she'd gotten behind on her house payments trying to pay her medical bills and had lost her house and moved into a trailer. She and her husband left town for Hurricane Ivan and came back to find their trailer completely destroyed, nothing left standing but the toilet. I couldn't get in touch with her for ages--no one knew where she was staying; my family would give her messages at work and she'd send the message back that she was fine and she looked forward to seeing me.

The next time I saw her she was at work still, and only slightly less cheerful than usual. It was just before Christmas 2004; we talked awhile and I noticed that people would come buy things and pay her, and she would tuck the money in without looking at it. So I looked through her books, which had mostly survived the storm, and picked some out to put on top of the knee-high stack at my house awaiting my attention. She told me the total and I overpayed and she tucked it away without looking at it. I stayed awhile, wanting to say different things and feeling unable, and then feeling I hadn't done enough, and finally taking more money out when she was busy with a customer and hiding it where I knew she'd find it when closing shop at the end of the day.

The next time I was home was in June. It was a miserable trip: full of failed attempts to meet up with family and friends, and characterized any number of frustrated attempts to get schoolwork done: much of my family had cancelled internet service; the rest had flaky broadband that spent more time off than on; draconian librarians and the lack of a car served up more frustration, and the experience was capped off by marital discord at three of the four places I stayed. I felt unwanted and in the way everywhere, but I was low on money and couldn't afford a hotel or a car, and so everything that I could do depended on someone else's schedule. It was a poorly planned trip. Eventually I settled in with my aunt, my infirm grandmother, and my cousins in an already packed house, only to have another cousin, her husband, and their batshit insane pit bull move in when Hurricane Dennis hit. After that there was no power and no potable water, just a stultifying humid heat and short tempers all around, and it was an absolute relief to leave. I didn't get to see my friend at the flea market.

I was home again in December, just before Christmas. I ran into her husband at an auto parts store; he asked me if I'd heard about his wife. I said yes, thinking he'd meant about moving shop: the older flea market was being torn down. I asked him if she'd be at the new place that weekend because I'd like to see her. No, he said, I hadn't heard. She died on December 11, 2005. It was barely the 20th and here he was, this man who'd been married to her for decades, back at work, extended vacations not a poor man's prerogative. We talked about her awhile, about how optimistic and generous she was; and he mentioned that she had been looking forward to seeing me over Christmas. It hurt, not because he meant it to, but because she was my friend and I hadn't done enough for her; and going to San Francisco instead of going to my hometown earlier was just the last of it.

He began to get choked up, talking about her at the register, and his coworker began giving him sidelong glances, and so I asked him about his upcoming trip to visit his son. He seemed relieved about the change in subject; not long after that, my sister had to leave to meet her husband, so we left. But I've been thinking about it since: about how kind she was, about how she used to joke that some day she'd be selling my books and I'd have to autograph her a copy, about how a year and three months can come to seem like a few weeks, opportunities slipping by daily, unattended, unnoticed. It's odd to think about her not being in that little shop, odd to think about the shop not being there at all, and disappointing to know that she died hoping to see me again and that she didn't.
[Maxwell -- MTV Unplugged (what happened to the domestic version? The one without track 8, that was half as expensive? Is this it? Because they have their tracklisting all wrong)]
[Nellie McKay -- Get Away from Me]

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an email's on its way later this morning, tuwa.

..listened to This Woman's Work while reading your post... the next song up in itunes was Falter by Lori McKenna who's chorus goes:
"Why don't we open up,
knowing that we all falter
when will we learn
to reach out for each other"...
It was an achingly beautiful moment in my day. You did reach out and touched her life, and her yours; no matter how small an impact we make in someone's life there is beauty, and reward, in the effort.
Thanks for sharing.

(oh, btw, your links for the songs are flip-flopped)

Thanks for the email, Sean, and for the kind words, Anonymous. That McKenna song sounds nice; I'll have to look for it.

Thanks for the notice about the links too; it's been corrected now.

Great post, very moving.

i know of what you speak. and then i wonder what the heck would it have mattered? To quote Douglas Adams. Death is for the living. as much i want to think i would have made a difference another part of me slaps me in the head and tells me to stop being so silly.

I grieve for your loss. it would be great if there was something we could do. so i guess the only thing we can is appreciate what we got and let them know. i am just glad that i let bob know, but i still don't think i told him soon enough before the end.

i'm starting to ramble.

for the music, as always a good choice.

hurry up and move yer butt out this way

mister x

Thanks, Amy, and thanks Mr. X.

Mr. X if I move out there, you know we're going to have to make a movie, but I'm going to want to make a movie that doesn't suck. ^_^


it's a deal.


you're not talking about my job are you?

mister x

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